Nickeled and Dimed

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Nickeled and Dimed


In her discussion and analyzation of life for minimum-wage workers, Barbara Ehrenreich takes a very personable, yet thorough, approach. She demonstrates to the reader that the poorest people in America are still simply human, and do not have some secret way of coping with their hardships. Ehrenreich’s candor enables her to give her findings more impact, as her frank observations are immediately relatable to nearly any audience. She sympathizes with the subjects of her research, as nearly anyone would, by focusing on the very human aspects of their situation. “And this is the answer from Colleen, a single mother of two who is usually direct and vivacious but now looks at some spot straight ahead of her, where perhaps the ancestor who escaped from the Great Potato Famine is staring back at her, as intent as I am on what she will say: ‘I don't mind, really, because I guess I'm a simple person, and I don't want what they have. I mean, it's nothing to me. But what I would like is to be able to take a day off now and then ... if I had to ... and still be able to buy groceries the next day.’” (Ehrenreich 118-119)Barbara Ehrenreich’s reflection on the things she sees during her study is prevalent, and she offers insight on the effects of living as a low-wage worker. She examines their condition from all aspects, enabling the audience to truly understand the problem.



Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in AmericaBy: Barbara Ehrenreich, a widely published author, feminist, and social activist.

Sypnopsis:In Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich, a comfortably middle-class writer, decides to enter the world of the minimum-wage worker in order to find out what life is like for them. She admits from the outset that she is not in exactly the same position as most low-wage workers, but she makes every effort to be as objective as possible. Throughout her experiences as a waitress, maid, and retail worker, Ehrenreich details each part of the lives of those at the bottom of the economic ladder, including the indignities of drug testing and job orientation, lack of inexpensive housing or healthcare, oppression of unions, the government’s apathy towards the poor, and the endless long hours of gritty, grimy, grueling work. She explores the causes of such deplorable conditions for the poor and explains the unsavory consequences of capitalism, describing the inescapable cycle of poverty which consumes America’s least fortunate.


Recommendation/Critical Review:Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America was highly effective in demonstrating the hardships faced by low wage workers in America, due to Ehrenreich’s honesty and objectivity. By using the technique of immersion journalism, Ehrenreich was able to provide the reader with an almost first hand account of the struggles of poverty. In the book, Ehrenreich compares her initial perceptions of low-wage work, to the realities she faced during her experiment, to demonstrate to the reader just how uneducated the general populace is in regards to poverty. Throughout the book, Ehrenreich also backs up the findings of her first hand accounts, with many facts and figures taken from reputable sources, such as the Census Bureau, and the New York Times. By utilizing these outside sources in unison with her experiences, Ehrenreich is able to provide meaning to the data, and thus make the existence of poverty a more digestible and tangible thing, as opposed to a looming idea.

Related Works:-Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell-The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler

Nickel and Dimed is essentially about the struggle for survival facing low-wage workers. As Barbara Ehrenreich points out, minimum-wage workers often develop severe “tunnel-vision,” as the only thing on their minds is making ends meet that month, and they often take even the most menial tasks at their jobs very seriously. Ultimately, the foremost thing on their minds by far is money. Ehrenreich’s coworkers often daydream about financial stability, a concept which is as far-removed from them as can be. While working as a hotel housecleaner, Barbara and her coworkers are watching a soap opera, in which one of the characters offers another character $10,000 to stop seeing her lover. Carlie, the tired, “middle-aged African American woman” working alongside Barbara, peeks out from the bathroom she is cleaning to say, “You take it, girl. I would for sure.” This simple comment shows how desperately low-wage workers wish to escape poverty, and their lack of ability to do so, despite doing all that can be expected of them. “Money, Money, Money” details the desire for the ever-distant dream of wealth.

Art Antonio Berni

Antonio Berni’s artwork sought to capture and portray the reality of daily life for the lower classes in his native Argentina, where industrialization had pushed countless people into poverty. "One cold, cloudy night, while passing through the miserable city of Juanito, a radical change in my vision of reality and its interpretation occurred...I had just discovered, in the unpaved streets and on the waste ground, scattered discarded materials, which made up the authentic surroundings of Juanito Laguna - old wood, empty bottles, iron, cardboard boxes, metal sheets etc., which were the materials used for constructing shacks in towns such as this, sunk in poverty." -Antonio BerniBy utilizing these genuine artifacts of poverty in his artwork, Berni illustrated the devastating effects of commercialism and consumerism, as the inhabitants of impoverished towns were almost literally drowning in the products which they toiled endlessly to make; the products themselves serving as symbols of the cause of this vicious cycle. Berni’s renderings of the effects of poverty on the lower-class are related to Ehrenreich’s work in their depiction of the degradation, sadness, and hopelessness that comes with low-wage work. Both sought to demonstrate just how severe the effects of poverty were to those who may not have experienced it directly, and how poorly the poor are treated in modern commercialist society

I work all night, I work all day, to pay the bills I have to payAin't it sadAnd still there never seems to be a single penny left for meThat's too badIn my dreams I have a planIf I got me a wealthy manI wouldn't have to work at all, I'd fool around and have a ball...Money, money, moneyMust be funnyIn the rich man's worldMoney, money, moneyAlways sunnyIn the rich man's worldAll the things I could doIf I had a little moneyIt's a rich man's worldA man like that is hard to find but I can't get him off my mindAin't it sadAnd if he happens to be free I bet he wouldn't fancy meThat's too badSo I must leave, I'll have to goTo Las Vegas or MonacoAnd win a fortune in a game, my life will never be the same...It's a rich man's world

Theme Song:"Money, Money, Money" by ABBA

Discussion Questions:1. After learning about Barbara Ehrenreich’s experience as a low- wage worker, how have your individual perceptions of blue collar laborers changed? What notions or preconceptions did you initially have about low-wage work, and how did hearing about Ehrenreich’s experiences refute these prejudices?2. In the book, Ehrenreich discusses the never ending cycle of poverty that many low-wage workers face, stating that ''there are no secret economies that nourish the poor. On the contrary there are a host of special costs. If you can't put up the two months' rent you need to secure an apartment, you end up paying through the nose for a room by the week. If you have only a room, with a hot plate at best, you can't save by cooking up huge lentil stews that can be frozen for the week ahead. You eat fast food or the hot dogs and Styrofoam cups of soup that can be microwaved at a convenience store.” Does this change your views of people who find themselves trapped in poverty? What do you propose to be a plausible solution to this problem?3. Do you think Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America would have been as successful if Ehrenreich simply researched low-wage work, instead of immersing herself in it and experiencing it first hand? Why, or why not?4. What did you find to be the most shocking discovery of Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiment? 5. Why do you think that the harsh realities of poverty are so often concealed from the general public? What effect do you believe the withholding of this information has on the common perception of poverty?

Central Arguments/Devices:Central ArgumentsThe central arguments made in Nickel and Dimed revolve around the injustices perpetrated by society upon the poor. Ehrenreich’s goal is to allow the reader to understand, through the retelling of her firsthand experience, why it is wrong to allow the poor to suffer in such deplorable conditions without making any effort to change the system. Ehrenreich also frequently points out the government’s lack of involvement in assisting the poor, particularly in light of then-recent welfare reform. Essentially, Barbara Ehrenreich seeks to expose the horrible conditions of the working class to those who have not been condemned to that role in society in an effort to bring about change.StrategiesAppeal to LogicEhrenreich approaches many of her findings with an objective, logical point of view, in order to maintain her credibility. She keeps her observational tone, and generally attempts to separate herself from the situation she is studying. (Her struggle in separating the two ultimately supports the claims she makes regarding the poor.)“There seems to be a vicious cycle at work here, making ours not just an economy but a culture of extreme inequality. Corporate decision makers, and even some two-bit entrepreneurs like my boss at The Maids, occupy an economic position miles above that of the underpaid people whose labor they depend on. For reasons that have more to do with class-and often racial-prejudice than with actual experience, they tend to fear and distrust the category of people from which they recruit their workers. Hence the perceived need for repressive management and intrusive measures like drug and personality testing. But these things cost money - $20,000 or more a year for a manager, $100 a pop for a drug test, and so on - and the high cost of repression results in ever more pressure to hold wages down. The larger society seems to be caught up in a similar cycle: cutting public services for the poor, which are sometimes referred to collectively as the "social wage," while investing ever more heavily in prisons and cops. And in the larger society, too, the cost of repression becomes another factor weighing against the expansion or restoration of needed services. It is a tragic cycle, condemning us to ever deeper inequality, and in the long run, almost no one benefits but the agents of repression themselves.” (Ehrenreich 116)AnecdoteThe use of anecdote is another key part of Ehrenreich’s relatable diction, as we get to know Barbara on a more personal level, while still advancing the story and better understanding her central arguments “The idea that led to this book arose in comparatively sumptuous circumstances. Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper's, had taken me out for a $30 lunch at some understated French country-style place to discuss future articles I might write for his magazine. I had the salmon and field greens, I think, and was pitching him some ideas having to do with pop culture when the conversation drifted to one of my more familiar themes - poverty… Then I said something that I have since had many opportunities to regret: "Someone ought to do the old-fashioned kind of journalism-you know, go out there and try it for themselves." I meant someone much younger than myself, some hungry neophyte journalist with time on her hands. But Lapham got this crazy-looking half smile on his face and ended life as I knew it, for long stretches at least, with the single word ‘You.’” (Ehrenreich 1)Informal DictionThe use of informal diction makes the author more relatable to her audience, and ultimately gives her story more impact. Because the reader can sympathize with Barbara as she struggles through low-wage life, the reader can also sympathize with the millions of other people in poverty. “And the surprising thing is that you can walk out without permission, that the door opens, that the thick tropical night air parts to let me pass, that my car is still parked where I left it. There is no vindication in this exit, no fuck-you surge of relief, just an overwhelming dank sense of failure pressing down on me and the entire parking lot. I had gone into this venture in the spirit of science, to test a mathematical proposition, but somewhere along the line, in the tunnel vision imposed by long shifts and relentless concentration, it became a test of myself, and clearly I have failed. Not only had I flamed out as a housekeeper/ server, I had forgotten to give George my tips, and, for reasons perhaps best known to hardworking, generous people like Gail and Ellen, this hurts. I don't cry, but I am in a position to realize, for the first time in many years, that the tear ducts-are still there and still capable of doing their job.” (Ehrenreich 59)HumorThe use of humor is an integral part of the author’s informal diction, and makes the book more interesting and enjoyable for the reader, while showing Ehrenreich’s bluntly realistic point of view, as well as her witty sarcasm.“Meanwhile, the yuppies are waving me down for more decaf and the black couple looks ready to summon the NAACP.” (Ehrenreich 32)“Then there is the threat of the drug tests, hanging over me like a fast-approaching SAT It rankles - at some deep personal, physical level - to know that the many engaging qualities I believe I have to offer - friendliness, reliability, willingness to learn - can all be trumped by my pee.” (Ehrenreich 72)FootnotesThe use of footnotes gives the author greater credibility, and extends Ehrenreich;s findings beyond their immediate impact.“ According to the Fair Labor Standards Act, employers are not required to pay "tipped employees," such as restaurant servers, more than $2.13 an hour in direct wages. However, if the sum of tips plus $2.13 an hour falls below the minimum wage, or $5.15 an hour, the employer is required to make up the difference. This fact was not mentioned by managers or otherwise publicized at either of the restaurants where I worked.” (Ehrenreich 16)“ I could find no statistics on the number of employed people living in cars or vans, but according to a 1997 report of the National Coalition for the Homeless, "Myths and Facts about Homelessness," nearly one-fifth of all homeless people (in twenty-nine cities across the nation) are employed in full- or part-time jobs.” (Ehrenreich 26)


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